9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ 12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. 14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
Let’s begin at the end of this passage: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” This is an audacious statement. To the casual observer of the events described at beginning of Mark’s gospel, things would not have looked good.
John the Baptist has been arrested, putting an end to his ministry. Now an unknown man from Nazareth, presumably insane, has emerged from the wilderness, proclaiming the “kingdom of God”. To John’s followers, Jesus was no satisfactory replacement. But as readers of the text, we have a privileged view of the events and their meaning.
Our text, which forms about half of what is known as the prologue of the Gospel of Mark, could be called an abstract for the book. It contains the message of Mark’s Gospel in concentrated form.
We have many key elements that are developed later in the Gospel, the fulfilment of prophecy, baptism, temptation by Satan, the Peaceable Kingdom, the service of angels, the call for repentance, and the announcement of the Kingdom. All of these themes have been the object of theological investigation and speak to politics in their own way.
Firstly, what is the meaning of Jesus’s baptism? Implied here is an endorsement of the baptism of John and his message of repentance of sins. There is also an endorsement of the democratic valuation of John’s message by Jesus’s following a mass of people to John. Jesus, by re-enacting their desire for John’s baptism is saying that they are on the right track. The meaning of Jesus’s baptism is later made clear in Mark 16:16 “The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.”
The baptism of John, in which Jesus shared, was a baptism available to all people; people of Judea and Jerusalem partook of it. Jesus of Galilee (verse 9) was also welcomed into this universal baptism. The Christian sacrament of baptism, initiated here by Christ in participating in the baptism of John, shows the radical and political nature of baptism in binding people of all nations together into one body that transcends political boundaries and ethnicity. The baptised form a new kingdom under the Lordship of Christ.
At the point of Jesus’s baptism the heavens are torn apart. What does this mean? Perhaps the heavens simply opened to allow the Spirit to descend as a dove would. Does it show a reconciliation between heaven and earth? Perhaps the heavens tore apart the barrier between heaven and earth.
Jesus seeing the heavens torn apart may indicate that he is the great tearer of the world. We might interpret this through Isaiah 64. Verse 1 and 2 read:
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
Reading on into Isaiah 64, we see how Israel had lost its way and fallen into spiritual and political ruin. The prophet Isaiah calls on God not merely to come down, but “so that the nations might tremble”, including the “adversaries” of Isaiah 63:18. God’s rule is needed again, for Israel had become like “those whom you do not rule” (Isaiah 63:19). God’s rule is needed once again. This begins with tearing up the legitimacy of false rulers in church and state.
The tear begun in heaven started a rip which Jesus kept tearing as he went about his earthly ministry, tearing through the Roman Empire, local rulers, and the religious institutions. Jesus wasn’t content with ironing out the wrinkles in the cloth of society, like a reformer would. Jesus was tearing society up through the middle, like a radical would.
This was how his ministry began (Mark 1:10) and continued until the tear in the temple curtain (Mark 15:38) upon his death. He then tore up the script of death and resurrected. He then ascended through the tear in the heavens to be seated next to the right hand of the Father (Mark 16:19).
Mark’s gospel account of the initiation of Jesus’ ministry covers in just seven verses what Matthew and Luke take almost a whole chapter to cover, with more detail of the temptations (Matthew 3:13—4:17; Luke 3:21—4:15). The extra details provided by the other gospels fill out the story and are theologically interesting (the three temptations of Christ have remained important for political theology), but may create distance between Christ and us, who may not face the same temptations.
We are all tempted by Satan, but in different ways. Mark here offers the readers the possibility that we can identify with Christ in our own temptations.
The wilderness is a part of God’s creation. It is not used by the powers or states; it is a chaotic barren wasteland. Here the wilderness is not overcome or tamed by God, it remains a part of God’s good creation. The wilderness has been a place beyond politics. Even today state sovereignty over the wilderness and desert may be only nominal, where bandits and wild animals await. It may also be the realm of evil spirits and Satan.
That Jesus can survive these threats to body and spirit testifies to God’s sovereignty over the ungodly wilderness. The Exodus showed that the wilderness was a place beyond the reach of Egypt. It was a place for the nation-building of Israel. John the Baptist showed it was a place of spiritual purification. Later in the New Testament we see that the wilderness was a place of political revolt (Acts 21:37-38).
Jesus’s encounter with the wild beasts has generated much scholarly speculation. Is Jesus the new Daniel (Daniel 6), who lived amongst the wild beasts? God’s protection of Daniel was temporary, whereas Jesus brings about the Peaceable Kingdom between humans and beasts (Isaiah 11:6-9) in healing the enmity between the humankind and other flesh (Genesis 9:2). Regrettably, now wild beasts have more reason to fear the human, as wilderness is disappearing and the human has become a threat to the wild animals as we diminish their habitat and hunt and poach and destroy animals in their natural habitats.
The combination of the tempter Satan and the beasts may imply a reference to Adam among the beasts in the Garden of Eden, although as the new Adam, Jesus resists temptation. This might signal that the kingdom is a restoration of paradise, without Satan, and with peace between humanity and other creatures, including the ministering angels.
Most commentary on this text, however, has focussed on the final verse: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” The question of the relationship between the kingdom, repentance, and the good news offers the interpreter much scope.
What does repentance mean? What is its role here? Jesus’s call to repent is an advance over John’s. John’s ministry of repentance for sins is over. His was a negative call to stop sinning. Jesus’s call for repentance is linked with belief in the gospel and a participating in the good news of God’s kingdom. The call to Christian discipleship, or following Christ, involves being baptised as Jesus was and being able to overcome the temptations of Satan (with the help of God and his Angels) and being active in the world (one of Satan’s temptations may have been to stay in the wilderness).
The Mennonite Dordrecht Confession (1632) states what repentance means in practice; if followed it would have widespread social and political consequences. The repentant, the Confession says, “must bring forth genuine fruits of repentance, reform their lives, believe the Gospel, eschew evil and do good, desist from unrighteousness, forsake sin, put off the old man with his deeds, and put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness”. Who in the world today would wish that their rulers would not have such a change of heart, and behave in this way?
Yet, repentance does not bring about the Kingdom. This is an important point. It means that the coming of the rule of God is not dependant on human action or response; the opposite is true, repentance, rather, depends on the Kingdom. God’s rule does not depend on public opinion. The legitimacy of the rule of God does not need a founding myth (like Rome’s Romulus and Remus) or founding violence (like the French Revolution).
Legitimacy is not found through consent, or any myth of a social contract. God’s rule is utterly different to the power and rule of the world, it is completely from God alone and humanity cannot control it or defeat it, it can only oppose it futilely.
God’s kingdom might be thought of as compatible with earthly kingdoms, being reduced to some “spiritual” realm. This is not how the early Christians thought of it. Consider Acts 17:6-7: “they dragged Jason and some believers before the city authorities, shouting, ‘These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.’”
The kingdom of God is worldly, how else do we make sense of the incarnation, the heavens coming down to earth, and Jesus’s own saying that “the kingdom of God has come near”. That can only mean that is it near among us here on earth.
The kingdom is close in space, but also close in time. Jesus’s use of the present tense is in contrast to the kingdoms of this world, which continually exhibit a kingdom-delayed model. Politicians forever promise a better life later. It never arrives. There is always a reason (either the previous government or “prevailing economic conditions” outside the control of the government) for why paradise is delayed once again.
Jesus’s kingdom was expected by his contemporaries, but could they recognize that it had arrived? In politics we need to recognise that the Messiah has come, and no politician can fulfil this messianic role.
This text does not contain a predominant political theme. Rather it quickly highlights several features of God’s kingdom that is already among us. This is a new order of rule that comes from beyond established polite political society. The season of Lent is a perfect time to join God’s kingdom in repenting of our sins that obscure the Kingdom from us.
Dr. Richard A. Davis is Senior Lecturer in Theology and Ethics at the Pacific Theological College in Suva, Fiji Islands. He tweets on @rad_1968.